Good Thursday Afternoon,

It’s time to take a look at the polls! In this week’s issue of Magnified, we take an in-depth look at the battle over the memory of the UK Government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and the likely arguments that will take place in the 2024 general election.

This week, our research also covered:

  •  Party associations on lower taxes
  •  The Rwanda agreement
  •  Boris Johnson’s visit to India

If you would like to find out more about how Redfield & Wilton Strategies can help your organisation succeed through polling and strategic advice, click here.

Westminster Insights

Westminster Voting Intention
(17 Apr):

Labour 42% (–)
Conservative 34% (–)
Liberal Democrat 10% (+2)
Green 5% (–)
Scottish National Party 5% (+1)
Reform UK 3% (-1)
Other 1% (-2)

Changes +/- 10 Apr

All Net Approval Ratings
(17 Apr):

Keir Starmer: -5% (–)
Rishi Sunak: -18% (-6)
Boris Johnson: -21% (+2)

Changes +/- 10 Apr

The Labour Party’s lead over the Conservative Party in our Westminster voting intention poll remains a significant 8%. In addition, both of the leading figures of this Conservative Government are behind Keir Starmer with regard to who would be the better PM for the UK at this moment (6% for Boris Johnson, 13% for Rishi Sunak).

Such leads for Labour and for Starmer are, however, not due to a distinct rise in popularity for the left-wing party. There has been no new policy platform or major initiatives recently proposed by the Labour Party that has rallied the public. Instead, its leader’s approval rating remains slightly negative (-5%), while 45% of the public express no opinion of him, neither positive nor negative.

Rather, Labour’s success in the polls comes as a distinct result of a marked decline in popularity for Boris Johnson’s government, particular with respect to its management of the economy and the cost-of-living crisis.

Above all, Rishi Sunak’s approval rating, the topic of last week’s Magnified, continues to fall precipitously, reaching yet another new low of -18% this week. Among those who voted Conservative in 2019, his net approval rating is a meagre +7%. Closely ahead of him in disapproval is Boris Johnson, whose overall disapproval of -21% is counterbalanced, somewhat, by a notably higher approval of +23% among those who voted Conservative in 2019.

Given such distinct disapproval for both Sunak and Johnson, the public has become increasingly indecisive when asked which of the two would be the better Prime Minister for the United Kingdom at this moment. 42%, a highest ever, say they don’t know. 

It should be clear from such indecision that the public is hungry for something new and different. Will someone else be able to offer that?

Chart of the Week

Astute readers of Magnified will know that the Conservative Party’s loss of its reputation for low taxes has been something we have covered before. Yet, Twitter is also catching up to this development, with our tweet of the above graphic on Tuesday sparking a reaction from many of our followers. Rightfully so, we may add. For the Conservative Party, it should be alarming news that they, the party that promised tax cuts in their 2019 election manifesto and drew red lines on any increases to VAT and national insurance, have become so infrequently associated with lower taxes.

Hire Us: If you are a business, campaign, or research organisation looking to expand your understanding of public opinion, Redfield & Wilton Strategies has the tools to help. Get in touch to find out more.

Long Exposure: In-Depth Analysis

The Politics of Covid, Post-Covid

More than anything else—even Brexit—the coronavirus pandemic defines and may perhaps forever define Boris Johnson’s Premiership, for both good and bad. 

In fact, both detractors and supporters alike point towards this defining issue when discussing Johnson. A plurality of 28% of respondents to our polling, including 50% of those who would vote Conservative today, cite the coronavirus pandemic as Boris Johnson’s best issue. Brexit, at 15% of the public and 20% of likely Conservative voters, is a distant second. Another plurality, 20%, including 25% of those who would vote Labour today, cite the pandemic as Johnson’s worst issue.

For a time, Boris Johnson’s approval rating and the Conservative Party’s performance in voting intention polling were in complete sync with views regarding the Government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Whenever cases ticked upward and the Government was seen by many as behind the curve, the Conservatives’ and Johnson’s ratings dipped. The first time that Labour led in our Westminster polling was in October 2020, just prior to the second national lockdown, which was criticised at the time for coming too late. Whenever cases trended downwards, the Conservatives came back into the lead, most notably in the spring of 2021.

At this point, however, opinions on the Government overall have become divorced from opinions on its response to the pandemic as the country largely returns to something that resembles life before the pandemic. Unlike other policy areas, where the public’s disapproval in recent weeks has been unmistakable, approval for the Government’s performance on the coronavirus pandemic has fluctuated between slightly positive and slightly negative. This week, for instance, 41% disapprove and 38% approve of the Government’s pandemic performance, compared to 42% who approved and 37% who disapproved earlier this month on 3 April.

Despite this divergence, the 2024 general election will assuredly feature arguments, on both sides, regarding the Government’s pandemic response, and how the public remembers the Government’s pandemic response will therefore be crucial. 

Interestingly, looking more closely at specific aspects of the Government’s overall pandemic response, such as vaccines, care homes, testing, travel regulations, and more, reveals a public that is less divided than appears. As such, it is primarily the relative importance that is attached to these specific aspects that determines what is thought of overall about the Government’s performance on the pandemic.

Critics of the Government in 2024 will likely place emphasis on the lack of proper preparation for and the slow initial response to the pandemic. 39% of the public think the Government did a ‘bad job’ preparing for the possibility of pandemic in the years prior, including 51% of Labour voters, while 45% think the Government did a ‘bad job’ in reacting quickly to the threat of the pandemic when it first arose. By comparison, 28% and 32% respectively think the Government did a ‘good job’ in these two areas.

Due to this poor initial response, the spread of the virus around the country became almost inevitable and uncontrollable. Every time coronavirus restrictions were relaxed, it seemed only a question of when, not if, another wave of infections would occur. By contrast, other island nations such as Taiwan, South Korea (effectively an island due to its closed border with North Korea), Australia, and New Zealand—all geographically closer to China—were able to effectively stamp out the virus in the early days of the pandemic through effective quarantines, testing, and contact tracing.

Had the United Kingdom adopted such an early proactive response, it is likely that significantly fewer deaths, fewer days of lockdown, and less economic damage would have occurred. 

Of the three above cited proactive measures, the Government never seemed to quite get quarantines or contact tracing right. Narrow pluralities still think ‘track & trace’ (38%) and travel restrictions (36%) were done badly. With travel restrictions and monitoring on the more relaxed side in the later periods, the Delta and Omicron variants were easily imported without detection into the United Kingdom from India and South Africa. 

Critics can further point towards a lack of adequate medical supplies (PPE) provided to the NHS and a failure to protect care homes. A clear majority of the public thinks the Government did a ‘bad job’ in protecting care homes from outbreaks (58%) and providing care home staff with PPE (54%). Nearly half (48%) likewise think a ‘bad job’ was done in providing NHS staff with PPE.  

In response to such criticisms, defenders are likely to argue that all countries in Europe, as well as the United States, were similarly unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic—but at least the UK was quick to adapt.

And indeed, in some areas, there were significant improvements over the course of the pandemic. In June 2020, 44% thought the Government had done a ‘bad job’ conducting a nationwide testing programme. With the advent of rapid antigen tests, distributed a massive scale, this figure had dropped to 29% by May 2021 and now stands at 24%. The view that the Government has done a ‘good job’ in this respect had correspondingly increased from 29% in June 2020 to 51% this week.

Other decisions in the later phases of the crisis are also viewed positively. Above all, an overwhelming 68% of the public thinks the Government did a ‘good job’ implementing a nationwide vaccination programme. Just 12% think a ‘bad job’ was done in this area. A plurality of the public (45%) is even willing to agree that the successful vaccination programme has made up for deficiencies in the early days of the pandemic, though 31% disagree.

Similarly, the plurality position on phasing the UK out of lockdown is positive (41%) rather than negative (27%), and a clear majority supports the decision to relax coronavirus rules earlier this year (53% to 28%). The public also indicates its approval with its behaviour, with the highest level of respondents now reporting that they feel safe going about everyday activities such as going to work, food shopping, drinking at a pub, and so on. 

With these largely supported decisions fresh in the minds of voters—and therefore greater importance attached to them—approval for Boris Johnson’s performance on the coronavirus pandemic is narrowly positive, well above his firmly negative overall approval rating.

What’s left then are the longer-term repercussions. It is in these areas where criticisms of the Government are most likely to hit their mark.

The rapid construction of NHS Nightingales in the spring of 2020 resulted in a strong majority of respondents (67%) in June 2020 saying the Government had done a ‘good job’ in expanding NHS hospitals to stop them from being overwhelmed. Just 13% thought a bad job had been done. This week, with millions of delayed appointments and operations stretching the NHS, that 67% figure has been diminished to 44%, while 33% now say the Government has done a ‘bad job’ on expanding the NHS to prevent it from being overloaded.

More significantly, whereas 63% in June 2020 thought the Government had done a ‘good job’ in protecting the jobs at risk as a result of the pandemic, that figure has been halved to 37%. With the furlough scheme long over, virtually just as many respondents (35%) presently say the Government has done a ‘bad job’ in this respect. 

What’s more, opinions of the management of the Government’s finances have changed dramatically. In May 2021, 38% thought the Government had done a ‘good job’ in managing the public finances. 22% thought a ‘bad job’ had been done. This week, the proportion of respondents saying ‘bad job’ has more than doubled to 48%.

Altogether, 45% thought in June 2020 that the Government had done a ‘good job’ in ensuring the economy was in a good position to bounce back after the virus has subsided. 21% had thought otherwise. Less than two years later, these figures have reversed, with 41% now saying ‘a bad job’ and 28% saying a ‘good job’ has been done in this respect. 

Criticisms by Labour and other opposition parties that combine the poor preparation for and initial reaction to the pandemic with the persistent economic and healthcare problems that continue to plague the UK years later are therefore very likely to be effective in the next general election. Without a radical shift in tone now, one that addresses these longer term problems as continuations of the coronavirus crisis in other forms, the Conservatives will find their later successes in their pandemic response, such as the vaccination programme, an insufficient defence.

Perspective: The R&WS Take on the News

UK seals deal with Rwanda to offshore asylum seekers
Politico | 14 April 2022

OUR TAKE: The UK’s new offshore immigration processing deal with Rwanda was one of the less noticed news stories of the last week. While 53% of respondents to our polling say they had heard a significant amount about Boris Johnson being fined for party-gate, just 27% could say the same about the Rwanda agreement. Given a barebones explanation, a plurality of the public (40%), including 51% of 2019 Conservative voters, say they support the deal. 28% oppose it. However, when it is revealed that the deal costs £120 million, the public is more split, with 40% saying such an expense would not be worth it even if the scheme succeeds in reducing Channel crossings.

Boris Johnson and Narendra Modi to avoid Ukraine in UK-India trade talks
Financial Times | 20 April 2022

OUR TAKE: India has drawn attention for being one of the few countries to adopt a neutral stance with regard to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. With Boris Johnson visiting India, more members of the British public cite an unfavourable view (29%) than a favourable (12%) view of how India has responded to the war in Ukraine. That said, 58% either express a neutral opinion (30%) or are undecided (28%), indicating the extent to which the public is largely unaware of India’s stance.

R&WS in the Media

Each week we bring you the top stories from the media that have featured our research.

Balancing the budget won’t win voters hooked on Sunak’s years of spending
City A.M. | 20 April 2022

Public support for Russian sanctions dwindles as cost of living crisis takes its toll
Sunday Telegraph | 16 April 2022

Poll: Rishi should quit as Chancellor
The Spectator | 13 April 2022

Are you a journalist needing a stat for your latest piece? We can be your resource—our polling covers hundreds of issues in multiple countries each week. If you are working on an article on a topical issue, chances are we have already asked the public about it. Get in touch and we’ll share our polling data with you!

Our Research on Social Media

Top 5 Tweets This Week

  1. Between the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, which do Britons most associate with lower taxes? (19 Apr): (see full tweet)
  2. Lowest net approval rating we have ever recorded for Rishi Sunak. (18 Apr): (see full tweet)
  3. Britons trust the Conservative Party more frequently than the Labour Party to respond to the coronavirus (31% to 28%) (15 Apr): (see full tweet)
  4. Between the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, which do Britons most associate with standing by the British worker? (19 Apr): (see full tweet)
  5. Government Competency Rating (17 Apr): (see full tweet)

Have a question or want to know more about our research? Get in touch! Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Follow us on Twitter

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